Editorial: the truth is out there

by The Listener / 05 December, 2013
Real journalism is being swamped by an army of PR gatekeepers.
They used to be known, quaintly, as public relations officers. The job usually appealed to journalists nearing the end of their career and wasn’t seen as particularly onerous. There weren’t many of them: high-profile national companies usually managed with one or two. Many government departments and city councils got by without them altogether.

That seems almost inconceivable now. Politics and business have been transformed by the growth of what is known, often euphemistically, as the communications business. The spin doctor has become a key figure in the political and corporate landscape, and the job is now a high-pressure 24/7 commitment that calls for ambitious, energetic thrusters. Often, the communications adviser occupies a position of formidable power; think Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s notoriously aggressive director of communications, and Peter Mandelson, now Lord Mandelson, who was one of the first to be known as a spin doctor and whose later moniker was the “Prince of Darkness”.

Getty Images

It’s easy to see why the comms business has proliferated. It came about partly in response to increased demands for accountability from the government and corporate sectors, partly as a defensive reaction to relentless scrutiny by a more assertive and competitive news media. Its rise also reflects the greatly increased pace and intensity with which politics, even our parliamentary Question Time, and business are conducted. Managing the media, as Blair once ruefully noted, is a huge challenge.

But there is compelling evidence that the solution is now the problem. What the private sector spends its money on is its business, but not so in the public sector – and the communications business in the public sector has grown into a monster.

Earlier this year it was disclosed that Auckland Council and its associated agencies employed 143 communications, public relations and marketing staff and had spent nearly $60 million promoting itself in its first two years. Mayor Len Brown was reported as having six communications advisers, more than there are for the entire parliamentary Labour Party.

Radio New Zealand reported in October that the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority had spent $3.2 million on communications staff and consultants – up a third – in the previous year, increasing its team from 11 to 16 (in fact 26, taking into account support staff). Ironically, despite all those media specialists, no one was available when the broadcaster sought comment.

By comparison, the Southern District Health Board seems almost frugal. But the Association of Salaried Medical Specialists points out that the board is spending $445,000 on communications this year whereas two years ago it managed with $159,000. At the same time, according to the association, the board is cutting back on beds and nurse training. Once again, no one from the board was available to be interviewed; instead, a press statement was issued. Communication is all very well, it seems, but only as long as you can control the process.

As these examples suggest, no one should be so deluded as to think the communications business is about increased transparency or accountability. The real purpose of many highly paid communications advisers is not so much to facilitate the flow of information as to manipulate, control and, if necessary, withhold it; put another way, to ensure their employers are spared embarrassment.

Meanwhile, a significant shift has occurred in the balance of power between journalists and PR functionaries. For all the supposed power of the media, many reporters increasingly find the dice loaded against them as information retreats behind walls erected by media minders.

The effects have been magnified by the crisis in the print media, and nowhere more so than in local government. Newspapers, which once comprehensively reported council meetings and dug beneath the surface of municipal affairs, either no longer have the resources to do so or have been persuaded it’s no longer sexy. In place of genuine journalism, newspaper readers now get pages of soft PR “news”, paid for by the local council and carefully packaged to show it in the best possible light.

In other words, the communications sector whose rampant expansion was once justified as enhancing accountability is now, if anything, having the reverse effect. And the irony is that the public, by picking up the tab, ends up paying to have the wool pulled over its own eyes.

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